Wild Ginger Within the Morgan Arboretum

Wild ginger is an understory perennial that grows up to 6 inches tall at maturity. It springs from an underground network of rhizomes and forms dark green, heart-shaped leaves about 3 inches in diameter. The clonal growth forms a mat of wild ginger that covers the ground, which prevents other seedlings from growing within the colony by effectively out-competing them for light. Allelochemicals found in the plant could also play an important role in structuring the surrounding community (Weston & Mathesius, 2013).

Wild Ginger colony

Wild Ginger colony

Wild ginger evolved in shady, rich, deciduous forests in large colony formations. Flowers are not produced until there are enough resources stored in the underground rhizome. Its flowers, found at the base of its stem, mostly self-pollinate, but a small portion are cross-pollinated by tiny flies. Seed dispersal is mostly done by ants and therefore is short-distance (Cain & Daman, 1997). Nonetheless, clonal growth is the most efficient way for reproduction in wild ginger (Muir, 1995). Like most woodland perennial herbaceous plants, wild ginger is susceptible to habitat destruction since they rely heavily on vegetative reproduction.

Maple forest stand

Maple forest stand

Native Americans and early Euro-Americans used the wild ginger for its flavor which resembles that of the asian plant commonly known as ginger (Zingiber officinale) and for its few medicinal properties. It can be cooked like the common Asian ginger and even has similar medicinal properties. The rhizome can be dried and ground into a powder to be used as a spice. It is often added to soups or can be made into candy. Research was conducted to investigate the legitimacy of wild gingers traditional use as a medicinal plant. It was found that the plant does have antibiotic properties, however the chemicals that give it these properties can be toxic in high doses. Wild ginger remains safe to eat in moderate amounts and can potentially alleviate problems such as stomach aches, hearing loss, convulsions, leg pain (sciatica) and coughing. Although it can be safe to consume as well as beneficial to your health, it is recommended that people still take caution. When eaten raw, the rhizome can induce vomiting so it is also essential to properly prepare it.

Wild ginger typically grows in the deciduous forests of eastern North America ranging from Manitoba to New Brunswick and extending south to Kansas and Florida (Anderson, 2000). It prefers well drained, moist and sandy or clay soils, full-shade to semi-shade and a soil pH between 6 and 7 (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 2015). The Asarum canadense is a very common understory plant in Quebec and usually found in bitternut hickory or in linden-maple stands (Leboeuf, 2006). The growing conditions of the plants, especially the soil type, were considered to frame our research question on the natural history of the wild ginger in the Morgan Arboretum, which is:

In the Morgan Arboretum, what are the effects of the different habitats of Asarum canadense on the size of the colonies and the vegetation surrounding them?

The objective of this study is to examine whether there are differences in the colony size within the common habitat range of wild ginger. Based on previous research and literature, we hypothesize that colony size will be larger under forest stands that have well-drained soil and more sunlight.

The Morgan Arboretum is owned and managed by McGill University and is located at the western tip of the island of Montreal. Understory plants in this climate experience a severe cold winter and humid warm summer. Perennial herbaceous plants such as A. canadense have above-ground parts that wither and die in late fall and sprout back from rhizomes when the ground thaws in the spring. The arboretum is divided into different forest stands comprised of both native and non native species. There are many invasive species in the area such as Rhamnus sp., Allaria petiolata, and Euonymus sp., which can pose a threat to native habitats.

Map of Morgan Arboretum. The green points mark the locations of surveyed wild ginger colonies.

Map of Morgan Arboretum. The green points mark the locations of surveyed wild ginger colonies.

Three study areas were selected based on the forest stands that are considered common habitats of A. canadense. These include sugar maple, mixed sugar maple, and Am. beech stands. Sugar maple and mixed sugar maple stands grow on St. Bernard soils, which are nutrient rich and well-drained, while beech stands grown on St. Rosalie soils which also contain high levels of nutrients but are imperfectly drained. The study areas were surveyed at first for the presence of A. canadense colonies. The size of these colonies was then measured and surrounding vegetation within a one meter radius was noted. Colony size is determined by average diameter and number of ramets (individuals). The reason for diameter measurement is based on the observation during surveying stage that the plant clonal growth is almost circular. This growth form is applied to all colony samples except for large colonies that have been restricted by large obstacle (big trees and rocks). To measure the diameter, a random cross section is made across the colony and an average measurement is recorded. Ramets were counted individually within the colonies. Surrounding vegetation within 1 m from the edge of the colony was recorded but frequency data was not collected since the purpose is only to observe which species are capable of growing in proximity to the wild ginger colonies (species richness, not abundance). Proportion of open habitat (shade intolerant) vegetation will be calculated and used as a proxy to indicate the degree of shade tolerance of A. canadense.

This study will provide a record of information regarding soil type and plant species richness surrounding A. canadense colonies which can aid further detailed studies of population and community dynamics at a local and regional scale. Invasive species  are a great threat to biodiversity in Quebec’s woodlands. An existing study was done to observe the interaction of local and invasive flora, in this case between A. canadense and Euonymus fortunei (Smith & Reynolds, 2012). This study suggests that there is a potential for using native plants, such as wild ginger, to manage invasive species. Overall, understanding the habitat and community structure of wild ginger will aid in the management and protection of not only the plant but of other plants and organisms that share its habitat.


Anderson, M. Kat. (2006, May 30) Canadian Wildginger Asarum canadense L.. Retrieved October 27, 2015, from http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_asca.pdf

Cain, M., & Damman, H. (1997). Clonal Growth and Ramet Performance in the Woodland Herb, Asarum canadense. The Journal of Ecology, 883-883. Retrieved September 29, 2015, from http://www.jstor.org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/stable/2960609?seq=13#page_scan_tab_contents

John Hayden, W. (2010). 2010 Wildflower of the Year. Retrieved October 29, 2015, from http://vnps.org/wildflowers-of-the-year/2010-wild-ginger-asarum-canadense/

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. (2014, August 6) Asarum canadense. Retrieved October 26, 2015, from http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ASCA

Lebœuf, Michel. Arbres et plantes forestières du Québec et des Maritimes. Waterloo (QC) : Éditions Michel Quintin, 2006.

Muir, A. (1995). The cost of reproduction to the clonal herb Asarum canadense (wild ginger). Can. J. Bot. Canadian Journal of Botany, 1683-1686. Retrieved October 29, 2015, from http://www.nrcresearchpress.com.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/doi/pdf/10.1139/b95-182

Stritch, Larry. Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense L.). Retrieved October 27, 2015, from             http://fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/asarum_canadense.shtml

Kopyt’ko, Ya. F, Shchurevich, N. N., Sokol’skaya, T. A., Markaryan, A. A. and Dargaeva,T. D. Uses, Chemical Composition, and Standardization of Plant Raw Material and Medicinal Substances from Plants of the Genus Asarum L. Pharmaceutical Chemistry Journal, Vol. 47, No. 3, June, 2013 (Russian Original Vol. 47, No. 3, March, 2013 ), from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11094-013-0917-2

KORZYBSKI, TADEUSZ, KOWSZYK-GINDIFER, ZUZANNA and  KURYŁOWICZ, WŁODZIMIERZ. Antibiotic, origin, nature and properties. 1967, pages 1505-1506, from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978148319801950249X

Smith, L., & Reynolds, H. (2012). Positive plant-soil feedback may drive dominance of a woodland invader, Euonymus fortunei. Plant Ecology, 853-860. Retrieved September 29, 2015, from            http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/419/art%3A10.1007%2Fs11258-012-0047-z.pdf?originUrl=http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11258-012-0047-z&token2=exp=1443346944~acl=/static/pdf/419/art%253A10.1007%252Fs11258-012-004

Weston, L., & Mathesius, U. (2013). Flavonoids: Their Structure, Biosynthesis and Role in the Rhizosphere, Including Allelopathy. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 283-297. Retrieved September 29, 2015, from http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/733/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10886-013-0248-5.pdf?originUrl=http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10886-013-0248-5&token2=exp=1443348585~acl=/static/pdf/733/art%253A10.1007%252Fs10886-013-024


5 comments on “Wild Ginger Within the Morgan Arboretum

  1. Thanks for writing this – it’s interesting, and you have captured many fascinating aspects of the natural history of wild ginger. Do you have any idea/sense about what the northern limits of wild ginger are? Can you speculate about what factors might limit the species northern distribution?

    • Hello Chris,
      A. canadense is native only to eastern North America and requires rich, moist but well-drained soil and partial to full shading for growing. These natural habitats in the east are only offered by a few trees like Acer saccharum, Fraxinus americana, and Fagus grandifolia, with the first two being most suitable. The northern limit therefore should be the transitional forest between these tree stands and the boreal stands, which are about southern Quebec, Ontario,and southeastern Manitoba. The interesting thing is USDA map of distribution of A. canadense and A. saccharum almost completely overlap with the exception of Manitoba, but provincial data states that there are small population of A. saccharum in south eastern corner of the province (*It s hard to see the limit within the provinces on USDA map).

  2. Interesting blog post! I’m curious, you mentioned the different soil types, did you observe the soil conditions in the field?

    • Hello Caitlin,
      we are glad you enjoy the post. We mentioned in the post about the two soil series in our studied area are St. Bernard (Mixed maple and maple stands) and St. Rosalie (Beech stands). These are both nutrient rich clay soil but St. Bernard comes from glacial till and have very good drainage and pretty rocky. St. Rosalie is just plain clay and have very poor drainage. We also scouted many other soil series in the Arboretum that come from other material than just clay, but the mentioned series are the only one with Wild Ginger. Between the two, Wild Ginger from St. Bernard have larger colonies. Hope that helps. Let us know if you have more questions. 🙂

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